The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the DPRK, Marzuki Darusman (hereafter ‘SR’), has submitted this year’s report to the UN General Assembly. The NK government once again refused to cooperate with the SR, denying him entry into the country. The report was therefore based on information received from the SR’s dialogue with other governments in the region, NGOs, UN entities (UNICEF, WFP, UNHCR, UNFPA, FAO), academics, diplomats, and information from reports and briefing papers. It covers a range of NKHR issues and includes the SR’s concluding recommendations. The full report is available here, but we will copy some of the key points from each section below.
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION
The report notes that a significant number of North Koreans access foreign DVDs, radio and television broadcasts, and use illegal Chinese mobile phones, despite the severe restrictions and harsh punishments imposed by the government.
The SR notes UN estimates of 16 million NKorean people continuing to suffer from varying degrees of chronic food insecurity and high malnutrition rates and expresses concern that in recent years there has been a disturbing trend of lowered food imports to offset the cereal shortfalls, thus presenting further challenges for vulnerable groups. The cereal deficit for the 2011/12 marketing year was estimated at 739,000 tons, leading to an uncovered cereal deficit of 414,000 metric tons. In addition to geographical and climatic conditions, production during agricultural seasons is severely limited by input shortages: availability and repair of mechanized equipment, availability of quality seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and fuel and labour shortages.
The report notes a modest economic recovery from 1999 to 2005, followed by negative growth in three out of the past five years. Between 2005 and 2012 there has been about 2% growth in real gross domestic product (GDP), implying an annual compound growth rate of about 0.4% in real national income. However current population growth stands at about 0.6% per annum, indicating that the per capita real GDP declined during this period. While agriculture remains the major contributor to the national economy, its share decreased from 30 to 20% of GDP between 2000 and 2012. In addition, volatility in agricultural production is a major challenge in maintaining a stable economy and improving the living standards of the population.
Inflation has been a serious problem in recent years, worsening unrelentingly after the failed initiative to revalue the currency in 2009. Estimates suggest that inflation on an annual basis has averaged 131% for rice and 138% for maize, although the average inflation rate rose less rapidly in 2011 than in 2010.
NK has previously experimented with economic opening to attract foreign capital, but has cancelled the initiative each time. The Government also made statements in 2010 and 2011 on its intent to promote light industry and agriculture, in contrast to previous years when the Government did not make mention of non-military priorities.
The SR notes that the extensive piped water supply systems installed during the early 1980s are now in poor condition due to low levels of investment and rehabilitation, shortage of electricity and destruction by natural disasters. The same can be said for the sanitation system; while almost all households have access to some form of sanitation facility, observations particularly in rural areas suggest it is almost always in poor condition. As a result, diarrhoea caused by inadequate water quality, poor sanitation and unhygienic personal behaviour remains a leading cause of mortality for children under 5 years of age. Despite some improvements in recent years, the current infant mortality rate at 19 per 1,000 live births and maternal mortality rate at 77 per 100,000 live births are considerably higher than in the 1990s (14/1,000 and 54/100,000, respectively).
Due to inadequate medical supplies and equipment, the health-care system is unable to meet basic needs, which seriously affects the health and nutrition status of the people, especially pregnant women, newborns and children under the age of 5.
CRIMINAL PROCEDURE CODE
The SR notes provisions of the NKorean Criminal Procedure Code that are not in line with international standards or that contain vague terminology that allow loose interpretation and abuse by the state. For instance, the Criminal Code prescribes punishments, mainly in the form of hard labour, for a person who “plunders” the property of the State, occupies a property of the State by “deception”, “defrauds” the State or a social cooperative organization, or “hinders” the normal management of the economy of State property, without any definition of the quoted words. The Code also prescribes punishment by labour up to two years for an agricultural supervisor if he fails to give directions to farmers in accordance with juche (self-reliance) agricultural methods. In addition, article 200 of the Criminal Code punishes plagiarism by labour for up to two years.
The case of Oh Kil-nam and his family was used as an example of the regime’s use of prison camps to punish ‘guilt by association’, the widespread use of arbitrary detention and forced labour and the deprivation of liberty without charges or due process.
The SR notes that the NKorean government compounds its failures to fulfil the economic, social and cultural rights of the people through a peculiar form of discrimination (songbun). The SR calls on the government and, where applicable, United Nations offices, to adopt a human-rights-based approach to programmes and policies on education, health, water, sanitation and food, with the aim of supporting better and more sustainable outcomes. This should be done through analysing the inequalities, discriminatory practices and unjust power relations that are often at the heart of such violations of rights.
The SR notes that most people who leave NK are driven to do so by hunger and denial of equal access to basic civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights. NGOs and asylum seekers informed the SR that since the leadership transition in in December 2011, the number of asylum seekers successfully crossing the Sino-NK border had fallen markedly due to heightened security. The SR expresses his alarm by recent arrests of human rights defenders working with asylum seekers in transit countries. In the absence of human rights defenders, most asylum seekers, particularly women and children, have been exploited by traffickers.
The SR also makes note of the 31 NK refugees who became the subject of the “Save My Friend” campaign and reiterates his previous calls to the neighbouring countries to respect the principle of non-refoulement and abstain from forcibly returning persons seeking international protection.
THE CASE FOR PEOPLE FLEEING NK TO BE CLASSIFIED AS REFUGEES
An important section of this report containts SR’s justification for emphasizing the refugee status of persons exiting NK. The SR explains that on 28 March 2012, in its first correspondence to the Office of UNHCHR, Pyongyang’s Institute for the Research of Human Rights argued that people who flee NK are “not defectors, asylum seekers or refugees, but illegal immigrants who leave the country for economic reasons or to escape unpardonable crimes against the country”, but the SR directly refutes this argument, by expressing that regardless of the motivation of persons fleeing NK, they are and should be considered as refugees due to the valid fear of persecution upon their return.
The SR reiterates that the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees of 1951, founded on the principle of non-refoulement for refugees, defines a refugee as “someone who is unable or unwilling to return to his or her country of origin due to a well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, political opinion, nationality or membership in a social group” and that persons leaving a country for reasons of economic hardship may be entitled to refugee status “if they have been compelled to leave the country due to discriminatory economic and political policies by the government.” Because the vast majority of those who flee NK belong to the “hostile” lowest class in the discriminatory Songbun system, there are strong grounds for arguing that their departure is indeed motivated by political persecution or their membership in a particular social group, which are two of the five conditions established by the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
The SR explains that those who flee NK due to economic hardships may also be considered as refugees sur place, meaning that they may not necessarily fit the definition of a “refugee” when they leave their country, but become refugees subsequently because of a valid fear of persecution upon their return.
The SR specifies that article 62 of the Criminal Code which bans citizens from travelling to another country without State permission is a clear violation of NK’s obligation under article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. In addition, article 245 of the Criminal Code which imposes punishment for persons who “damage the prestige of the State in foreign countries”, can also be used against asylum seekers, thus making a stronger case to consider those who flee NK as refugees.
The SR reminds states that they should also ensure that asylum seekers have access to assessment procedures and protection, including access to organizations working on refugee issues, while taking measures to prevent exploitation by traffickers or people smugglers.
HANNAH KIM | Research & Strategy Intern